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Jury Awards $8 million in Cancer Lawsuit

May 9, 2002 | The Miami Herald

A Miami jury awarded $8 million to a 44-year-old woman who sued her doctor and the University of Miami, saying her cancer went undiagnosed for 11 months after a mammogram showed a small nodule in one breast.

Hyacinth Vassell, who lives in North Miami and worked at Jackson Memorial Hospital, is now in the terminal stage of the disease.

''She'll never see her daughter get married, or her granddaughter grow up,'' said her lawyer, Virginia S. Forbes. ``All that has been taken away from her.''

Named in the lawsuit were the University of Miami Hospitals and Clinics -- a for-profit healthcare provider that is a division of the UM School of Medicine -- and employee Dr. Mark Multach, chief of the department of internal medicine and Vassell's primary care physician.

Vassell, who worked as a secretary at Jackson's cardiac care unit, went in for a regular mammogram in early October 1999. The results showed a small nodule in her right breast.

Vassell never received a notification from the Breast Imaging Center operated by UMHC or her doctor that she needed follow-up tests, said her lawyer.

By August 2000, Vassell detected a lump in her breast. She went in for another mammogram -- and was immediately administered a breast biopsy. Two days later, she got the result: cancer.

Multach could not be reached for comment. The county-owned Jackson Memorial Hospital, which has a research partnership with the university, was not named in the suit.

Jerry Lewis, a spokesman for the UM School of Medicine, said the school's lawyers are reviewing the verdict and will consider an appeal.

''Other than that, I can't comment,'' he said.

The verdict included $6.5 million for pain and suffering; the rest was for lost wages and medical bills.

Mammography results are becoming increasingly vulnerable to litigation. A Pennsylvania woman whose mammogram result was misrouted, leading to an eight-month delay in the diagnosis of her breast cancer, won a $33.1 million verdict in 1998. The case was settled soon afterward, a common legal maneuver to avoid drawn-out appeals. Forbes said the defendants, represented by the Fowler White law firm, claimed they tried to contact Vassell.

They said the Breast Imaging Center, where Vassell received her initial mammogram, sent her a letter saying she needed further examination, but Vassell said she never received it, Forbes said.

''They sent it through regular mail, and had no follow-up procedure that would trigger an alarm if a patient didn't respond,'' she said.

Defense lawyers also claimed the mammogram was inconclusive, not abnormal, said Forbes.

''It could have been a benign cyst,'' Forbes said. ``But it could also have been cancer.''

Multach, who worked in the same building as Vassell, also testified he tried to phone Vassell at home several times and once left a message with an adult male. But Vassell said she received no messages from the doctor on her voice mail and that the only males at the home were her nephews, ages 8 and 14, Forbes said.

Multach also sent Vassell -- who worked another job as a certified nursing assistant -- a letter stating she had a clean bill of health in November 1999, Forbes said. The letter, which Vassell needed for her CNA job -- made no mention of a problem with the mammogram.

After her diagnosis, Vassell underwent radiation therapy, a mastectomy and several rounds of painful chemotherapy -- but the cancer has now spread to her liver, said Forbes.

She's now being tended by hospice workers at her mother's house, and was recently put on a morphine drip to ease her pain.

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